Israelis and Palestinians: Agreeing to Talk, and to Fail

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Thaer Ganaim / Reuters

U.S. envoy George Mitchell is greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on March 8, 2010

They won't be talking directly to each other, but at least the leaders of Israel and Palestine have a common objective in the "proximity talks" the Obama Administration is launching this week. Unfortunately, that shared goal is not to reach a final agreement on a two-state solution to their conflict — both sides know better than to expect that U.S. special envoy Senator George Mitchell's shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah will be able to bridge the chasm between their demands. Instead, the mutual goal in the latest round of talks is to avoid being blamed for their failure.

The very fact that two decades after the start of the Oslo peace process, the two sides are no longer even negotiating directly but instead communicating via the Americans is a clear sign of just how grim the prospects have become for achieving peace through bilateral talks. Both sides, in fact, are showing up for the U.S.'s latest version of a peace process largely to prove a point. For the Palestinians and their Arab backers, who have given the latest round of talks just four months to produce results (a deadline not endorsed by the Obama Administration), their purpose is to demonstrate to the U.S. that no credible peace agreement can be achieved with the hawkish government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that creating a viable independent Palestinian state requires that the Americans press the Israelis to do things they're not going to do voluntarily. Setting conditions and deadlines is a way for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to offset the domestic political damage he suffers from participating in endless rounds of fruitless negotiations. Abbas was helped by the fact that the new talks were endorsed by the Arab League last week, but the tone of its statement is telling: "Despite the lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side," said Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa, his committee agreed to back the talks "as a last attempt and to facilitate the U.S. role."

The Israelis, for their part, need to demonstrate good faith and position themselves to blame the Palestinians, as they have done up to now, for the absence of a peace deal. And Israeli officials make no bones about the fact that they need to go through the motions in order to pursue their own priority: resuming talks, a senior Israeli official told the daily Yediot Ahronot, "would create an atmosphere in the Arab world and the international community that would allow the world to focus on the real threat — Iran."

Netanyahu, after taking office, came around to talking of a two-state solution, which he had previously rejected, but at the same time he defined Palestinian statehood in terms too limited to be acceptable to the Palestinian leadership. Netanyahu had publicly opposed the offers made to the Palestinians by previous Israeli governments, and his government made clear last week that new talks would not begin from understandings reached with any of his predecessors but would instead start from scratch — a position vehemently rejected by the Palestinians. Of course, none of those previous offers had been accepted by the Palestinian leadership; it's hard to see how offering less than the proposals previously rejected by Abbas, as Netanyahu appears set to do, is going to break the deadlock. But Netanyahu will argue that Israel is willing to talk directly and without conditions and to use the Palestinians' refusal to do so as a basis to blame them for the stalemate.

While in theory a peace process might require that the protagonists make tough choices, the "proximity" process being initiated by the Obama Administration will, in fact, land the tough choices on the desk in the Oval Office. Four months or more from now, it will probably become clear that the gap between Israel and Palestine is unlikely to be bridged by simply talking. And then the question will be, Is the U.S. willing to force the issue by putting on the table its own views of an acceptable settlement and beginning to press both sides toward accepting it?

Even as Senator Mitchell shuttles between them, both sides appear set to escalate their confrontation on the ground, in growing battles over expanded Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and elsewhere and over the status of various sites considered holy by both Jews and Muslims. Last Friday's confrontations between Israeli police and stone-throwing Palestinian youths in Jerusalem may be a portent that the latest round of peace talks could, in fact, be starting under the cloud of a looming intifadeh.